Sunday 8 December 2019

Worlds 7/16 - Smith, Woodhouse, Lim, van den Bergh, Payne, Portela

With Michael Smith having made the final of the previous year's worlds, it was surely just a matter of time before he would finally claim the first major title of his career. Well, we're still waiting, but there is still very much the feeling that it's not a case of if Smith claims a major title, but when. How close has he been this year? Pretty close. Let's look at the majors - the UK Open was an event where he was working through some sort of injury, so to get to the semi final has to be somewhat of a decent result, with the slog of a final day finally stopping at the penultimate hurdle to Rob Cross. It'd be Cross that would do him in Blackpool as well - it looked quite close before the game, but Cross was to win the first nine legs to end the final before it even started. Perennial rival Ian White would drop him out of the Grand Prix, while he was lucky to even be in the European Championship (he needed a result in the last event in Gibraltar to qualify after a string of first match losses when seeded, which do not count towards order of merits), he'd run into Gerwyn Price at the wrong time, Glen Durrant would stop him in the Grand Slam, while Ian White again stopped him in the Players Championship finals. We've mentioned the struggles he's had on the European Tour, elsewhere on the floor Smith has surprisingly not managed to pick up a title, but has generally been fine apart from that. He's probably fallen a bit behind the likes of Price and Cross this year, but when it clicks he's still capable of beating anyone.

Luke Woodhouse makes his world championship debut after a good floor season has put him probably within one win of retaining his tour card. He's a name that was probably unknown to most casual fans until very recently, where he was able to hold his game together in a deciding leg at Minehead to eliminate Daryl Gurney on his first TV game. While that appeared a shock, it wasn't that much of a surprise if you've seen what Woodhouse has been able to do on the floor, particularly earlier in the season. His best run on the floor was just before the summer break where he reached a quarter final, knocking out Stephen Bunting amongst others, and earlier won his board twice, knocking out van Barneveld and Whitlock in back to back games in one event. Those were the main peaks, but it was consistency that got him through to Minehead at the end of the year, not having many first round losses kept the prize money ticking over. While he did beat Gurney at Minehead, Gabriel Clemens was too strong in the last 32, but this wasn't the first time he'd reached that stage at that venue - the UK Open was an early feather in his cap, coming from early in the tournament to beat Chris Dobey, before coming close to taking out Jermaine Wattimena. Woodhouse additionally picked up some more stage experience in Europe - winning through two qualifiers in one day got him to the Netherlands and Denmark, Mervyn King and Willie O'Connor being not the easiest of draws, but in Riesa he did get a win over a domestic qualifier before going out to Steve Beaton. If he can retain his card it'll be something he'll want to build on, but one step at a time.

At the other end of the experience spectrum is Paul Lim, who was playing in world championships before Woodhouse was born and hit his famous nine darter when Woodhouse was one year old! Lim's making his 24th world championship appearance, twelve on each side of the divide, and is showing no signs of slowing down with another good season on the Asian Tour, during which he won two events and reached the final of two more, defeating Kai Fan Leung and Xiaochen Zong, but losing out to Royden Lam (while averaging 105) and Yuki Yamada. Lim finished second in the averages table on that tour to Noel Malicdem, ending just a shade under 90, which considering the relative level of play on that tour is probably an underestimate of where his level of play is still at. I'd take a guess that he's likely the underdog to Woodhouse, but not by much at all. We can get some sort of read from the World Cup, where Lim was one half of the Singapore team that eliminated Wales in the pairs, and while they would go out to Japan in the next round, Lim was close to defeating Seigo Asada to force a pairs match, and we know how good Asada can be.

2019's been the year when Dimitri has finally become too old to play on the Development Tour and the twice youth world champion has needed to concentrate solely on the senior circuit, and it's also been the year where he's finally started to make breakthroughs on the floor, the likes of which have previously prevented him from making more major tournaments and really rising through the rankings. While he is still wildly inconsistent - he still has too many legs where he simply fails to score as much as he can do, that he's been able to reach two Pro Tour finals is at least showing that he is able to play consistently enough on a single day, which is a start. In the first final, he beat Dobey, Wade and Cross before losing to Durrant, and in the second he defeated Cullen and White before losing a deciding leg to Krzysztof Ratajski. While that upturn in floor form wasn't quite early enough to make the Matchplay, he did sneak into the Grand Prix as a result, pushing Mervyn King very close, and did enough on the European Tour to get into the finals, mainly through more consistent qualification. He'd lose to Chisnall there, but qualifying for these events, at least in comparison to previous years, is the key thing. In other events, a last sixteen run in the UK Open was a solid performance, beating Ricky Evans and holding it together in a deciding leg against Mensur Suljovic before losing to Steve Beaton, and he appeared in the Grand Slam again, but lost to Robert Thornton in a group he should have advanced from. Most recently, he drew Stephen Bunting at Minehead, a case of bad timing given Bunting found his best form. He should be able to at least get up to Smith here, and then continue to build in 2020.

It's a second straight year at the worlds for Josh Payne, and his third appearance overall, qualifying through the Pro Tour again despite a relative lack of standout performances. Last season he was nearly able to knock out Dave Chisnall, and he'll hope to be able to push a seed close again this year, if not get further. Payne's best performance this year was clearly in the UK Open, where Josh was able to reach a first major quarter final after defeating Jamie Bain, getting a crushing win over Kyle Anderson, then knocking out Jamie Lewis and Simon Whitlock before Rob Cross would be too much for him to overcome in a 10-7 loss. His only other major performance would be at Minehead, where he lost in an ill-tempered affair to Adrian Lewis in the opening round. So what of Payne's floor form? Josh was able to qualify for five European Tour events, which is fine in itself, but only managed to get the one win once in those tournaments over Jyhan Artut - losses to de Zwaan, Boulton, McGeeney and Rowby John Rodriguez are probably not what he would be expecting, and you'd have thought he could get through at least a couple of those. On the Pro Tour, Josh didn't make a quarter final all year, but was consistent enough to win his first round game 70% of the time, pushing through to the board final on eight occasions. Those all added up to a comfortable enough qualification, but it's very different from his previous efforts which were primarily based on Pro Tour wins.

It's also a third appearance in the worlds for Diogo Portela, who is continuing to fight to get a tour card, but for now is reliant on the South American qualifier to gain big stage experience. Last year, Portela made a great effort in his preliminary game against Ron Meulenkamp, losing a deciding set, and will be hoping to do better this time around - he certainly has a chance. With no card, Portela's been playing the Challenge Tour, where he got an early semi final run, which allowed Diogo to get into the first Pro Tour weekend, where in the opening event he won his board, knocking out Gerwyn Price and, ironically, Josh Payne, before going out to Harry Ward, and he did make one other board final later in the year. Portela was able to win through the associates qualifier to make three early European Tour appearances, losing out to Mervyn King, Karel Sedlacek and Ryan Searle, and he was unlucky to draw Jamie Hughes in the UK Open, having beaten Barrie Bates in the first round but falling one round short of the money. Diogo has also played some of the BDO circuit, putting up decent enough performances to rank well within their top 100, hitting a best performance on their circuit of a semi final in Northern Ireland a couple of months ago.

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